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When Pope Francis invited the presidents of Palestine and Israel to come to his home and pray, he said, “Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment.”
It was just two weeks ago, while speaking in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, that the Pope invited the two leaders to pray with him. “In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace. I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.”
Here are six things that you need to know about this historic event:
- Who, What, Where
The meeting, which has now been called officially by the Holy See as a meeting of “invocation for peace,” is taking place inside Vatican City on this Pentecost Sunday.
Director of the Holy See’s press office Father Federico Lombardi said in a statement on Friday that Peres will arrive first, at 6:15pm, followed by Abbas 15 minutes later. After welcoming each one privately in his home at Casa Santa Marta, the Pope, together with the two presidents and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, will precede to a special triangular patio in the Vatican gardens, with a view of St. Peter’s Cupola.
“It’s a very beautiful spot,” Father Lombardi commented.
The Pope will then seat himself between the two presidents with the Patriarch – who arrived in Rome on the Vigil of Pentecost – sitting nearby, and the time of invocation for peace will begin.
“There will be a musical opening,” stated Lombardi, “then there will be three moments which will unfold in the chronological order of the three religions, first Judaism, then Christianity, then Islam.”
“There will first be a moment of thanksgiving for creation,” he continued, “then a moment asking for forgiveness, then the invocation for peace.”
Afterwards Pope Francis and the two presidents will each take a turn in their own way, to invoke peace for the Holy Land.
“Then there will be a gesture of peace,” said Lombardi, “probably in the form of a handshake, and they will plant an olive tree… and each of the four protagonists will put earth over this tree, as a symbol of peace.”
After this, the four will meet privately to spend some time freely among themselves. This will conclude the meeting.
The Holy Father’s invitation has come at a particularly poignant time, when negotiations between Israel and Palestine are at a standstill.
Last April, Israel suspended peace negotiations with Palestine after a reconciliation deal was signed between the two main Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas.
Israel rejected any form of collaboration with Hamas, which is widely recognized as a terrorist group. “I call on all responsible elements in the international community not to run to recognize the Palestinian government of which Hamas is a part and which rests on Hamas,” stated Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. “Hamas is a terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel and the international community must not embrace it.”
However, a Fatah spokesman said that despite Israeli “blackmail and threats,” they were proceeding with their “efforts to solidify the unity of our homeland and people.”
Indeed, on June 2, Palestine’s new unity government was sworn in, to which Netanyahu angrily responded: “Today, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] said ‘yes’ to terrorism and ‘no’ to peace."
Despite US attempts at pushing forward negotiations, the new unity government is a major obstacle in fostering dialogue between the two.
Henrique Cymerman – the journalist who worked with the Holy Father to set up meetings between the two during his trip to the Holy Land – told
El Mundo, “this is one of the most difficult moments that I remember since the Second Intifada; the process of peace promoted by the US has found itself completely stalled, above all because no one brought the two conflicting parties together in a meeting.”
Amid such political tension, this is precisely what Pope Francis has done: he has invited the two presidents to come and meet together and pray for peace.
Due to logistical issues the meeting could not take place in the Holy Land, as Francis first envisaged, but in his usual spontaneous way, he decided at the last minute to invite them to his own home. The meeting was organized quickly because Peres’ presidential term finishes in July.
However, the intentions of the Holy Father were quite different from US negotiators: his was a religious, human and psychological gesture: “It is a moment of invocation to God for peace,” commented Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land, from the Vatican on June 6.
Vatican observer Marco Tosatti told Aleteia that the meeting “is attempting to break the deadlock, psychologically rather than politically, in which Israelis and Palestinians meet each other. It is a gesture of a spiritual nature, which tends to give a ‘shock’—of shifting the gaze of these protagonists upwards.”
Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Pope Francis’ dear friend and compatriot who accompanied him in the Holy Land, wrote in La Nacion that the objective is to “create a moment in which, without the signing of a peace accord or treaty, two old fighters look at each other face-to-face and express in the language of gestures and silences a common cry for the cessation of all expressions of violence in the region.”
- Down to details: “Invocation”
This meeting will not be one in which a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim will be united in a common prayer. Each will pray privately, maintaining his own religious identity, but with a common cry: for peace.
The Holy See stated that the meeting will be “an invocation, an expression that in common language has a very strong meaning, and at the same time eliminates the word ‘prayer’ used in the first moments. Obviously, the fact remains that the protagonists will meet – as urged by Pope Francis – to pray for and invoke peace in the Middle East, but this is not a common prayer. The members of the delegations that will accompany the protagonists, while respecting their religious identities, will invoke peace for the region and for the people who have lived here for many centuries. "
- Political Dynamics
Some media outlets have suggested that Pope Francis might have political motives. For example The New York Times commented that “Pope Francis’ actions on Sunday posed a striking example of how, barely a year into his papacy, he is seeking to reassert the Vatican’s ancient role as an arbiter of international diplomacy.”
However, Father Pizzaballa stated from the Vatican that “it’s a pause with respect to the politics. The Holy Father doesn’t want to go into the political questions of the conflict in Palestine-Israel that we all know down to every minute detail….It’s the desire of the Pope to lift up the gaze, and go beyond the politics.”
Indeed the Pope himself remarked that the meeting was “to pray not to mediate.”
Skorka too, wrote in La Nacion that the “prayer-for-peace meeting has no direct political goals, it aims only to shape a significant encounter, so as to generate a different image in the reality of ‘mis-encounters’ between Palestinians and Israelis.”
Pope Francis certainly has no illusions as to the complexity of the situation in the Holy Land. Both his motives and his expectations seem to be rooted in simplicity. “The two presidents and I will only meet to pray and I believe that prayer is important and doing this helps,” he said. “Then they will go home. There will be a rabbi, a Muslim and me.”
There seems to be no grand expectations of immanent accord between the two states as a direct result of this meeting. “No one thinks peace will break out on Monday” said Pizzaballa, “rather, the intention of this initiative is to re-open a road that has been closed for some time, to recreate a desire, a possibility, to make people dream that peace is possible”.
Tosatti told Aleteia: “in a situation like the one in the Middle East where bad news is rife, a moment of meeting in peace and goodwill between enemies is at the very least a ray of light.”
This meeting then, is quite simply one of hope, of prayer, and of extending a hand in friendship.